Category Archives: Tad Delay

A Parable for Holy Saturday to Commemorate the Death of God

Christianity has an odd sort of experienced atheism built into it, both in the Christ’s moment of god-forsakenness on the cross as well as the day that God was dead.  In fact, to fend of your suspicion that there may be no God is not only dishonest with yourself- it also disconnects you from the pivotal moment of the Christian narrative.  This Sunday, every pastor in the world will preach about Resurrection, and every person in every church (every pastor included) will ask the same questions: is any of this true? And what would it matter if it were not?

Holy Saturday is the day between Good Friday and Easter.  In the Christian tradition, Holy Saturday commemorates the day that God was dead.  This parable asks us to consider what would or wouldn’t change if Holy Saturday (or Nietzsche’s parable of the Mad Man in The Gay Science) were truly the case. Scholars have noted that the earliest copies of the first Gospel account, Mark, originally ended without a resurrection account.  This parable asks what it would be like if original Mark was right.  Would a certain way of living be worth it if there was no transcendental reward?

This is a parable written by Peter Rollins in his book The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales.  It is a short and challenging book that I highly recommend purchasing.



LATE THAT EVENING A GROUP OF UNKNOWN DISCIPLES PACKED THEIR FEW BELONGINGS AND LEFT FOR A DISTANT SHORE, for they could not bear to stay another moment in the place where their Messiah had just been crucified. Weighed down with sorrow, they left that place, never to return. Instead they traveled a great distance in search of a land that they could call home. After months of difficult travel, they finally happened upon an isolated area that was ideal for setting up a new community. Here they found fertile ground, clean water, and a nearby forest from which to harvest material needed to build shelter. So they settled there, founding a community far from Jerusalem, a community where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ alive and live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness, just as he had taught them.

The members of this community lived in great solitude for over a hundred years, spending their days reflecting on the life of Jesus and attempting to remain faithful to his ways. And they did all this despite
overwhelming sorrow in their heart.

But their isolation was eventually broken when, early one morning, a small band of missionaries reached the settlement. These missionaries were amazed at the community they found. What was most startling to them was that these people had no knowledge of the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, for they had left Jerusalem before his return from the dead on the third day. Without hesitation, the missionaries gathered together all the community members and recounted what had occurred after the imprisonment and bloody crucifixion of their Lord.

That evening there was a great festival in the camp as people celebrated the news of the missionaries. Yet, as the night progressed, one of the missionaries noticed that the leader of the community was absent. This bothered the young man, so he set out to look for this respected elder. Eventually he found the community’s leader crouched low in a small hut on the fringe of the village, praying and weeping. “Why are you in such sorrow?” asked the missionary in amazement. “Today is a time for great celebration.”

“It may indeed be a day for great celebration, but this is also a day of sorrow,” replied the elder, who remained crouched on the floor. “Since the founding of this community we have followed the ways taught to us by Christ. We pursued his ways faithfully even though it cost us dearly, and we remained resolute despite the belief that death had defeated and would one day defeat us also.”

The elder slowly got to his feet and looked the missionary compassionately in the eyes.

“Each day we have forsaken our very lives for him because we judged him wholly worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now, following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow him, not because of his radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because his sacrifice will ensure their personal salvation and eternal life.”

With this the elder turned and left the hut, making his way to the celebrations that could be heard dimly in the distance, leaving the missionary.


Against Torture

I. Introduction

In the years following the attacks of September 11th, the American public engaged a controversy that seemed anachronistic: do we as a society condone torture techniques if they are deployed in the War on Terror? With the advent of the Geneva Conventions and United Nations charter, most had assumed this question was a settled dispute. One the other hand, many others decried the term “torture” as partisan word-play and insisted the techniques used were legitimate, if enhanced, interrogation tools. This controversy over terminology obscures the debate to this day, while also suggesting a public ignorant of the use of these techniques during the Bush administration. Demonstrably false claims, such as the administration’s repeated assertion that only three detainees had ever been waterboarded, were reported by the media as a legitimate point of view. Additionally, the military and CIA sections responsible for detainee prisons and black sites have kept a close guard on information. In 2004, news broke of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the American public was confronted with abuses that went far beyond the waterboarding of a handful of suspects. Rape and other forms of sexual abuse, humiliation, and electrocution were now a reality of American’s treatment of detainees.

According to reports from former officers and material produced by Wikileaks, abuses at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have included waterboarding, dry-boarding (slamming prisoner against walls), burning, stress-positions, sleep-deprivation, blasting high-decibel audio, and possible cases of homicide.[1] Eventually, the Bush administration officially endorsed twenty-four methods of enhanced interrogation, and numerous unendorsed methods have been used as well. That much of the public continues to support enhanced interrogation and that the media continues to refer primarily to waterboarding is a demonstration of our (perhaps intentional) ignorance of abuses. The Bush administration characterized all of these abuses as the result of rogue officers, but one must wonder if the interrogators and guards at these sites were not taking precisely the logical end to a road that began with an administrative memo in support of waterboarding. With a doctrine of sin, Evangelicals should have been the least surprised that a tacit approval of waterboarding lead to these horrific practices, but this has not proved to be the case.

Just after the height of the controversy, a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life polled American opinions on torture by religious group. It found the highest support for torture (the term “torture” being explicitly used rather than “enhanced interrogation”) among white Evangelical Protestants, with more than six in ten affirming torture is sometimes or often justified. Only one in eight Evangelicals answered it is never justified. This contrasted with a national mean of 49% answering torture is often or sometimes justified.[2] These numbers are significant for those of us who are part of the Evangelical Protestant church: as a whole, we are the greatest supporters of torture, and we seem to feel no dissonance between torture and the teachings of Christ. The election of Barack Obama was hoped to signal an end to nearly a decade of abuse, and while official policy has been drawn against torture, Guantanamo Bay has yet to be closed, black sites are still open, and we have little way of knowing whether the practices have been ended in total. With a large segment of the American population still in favor of torture, we should not presume this matter has been settled.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the issue of torture from a theological perspective. My objective is to provide context under which the current debate developed in the early years of the War on Terror, describe techniques used in order to 1) describe the horrific nature of interrogation techniques and 2) justify the use of the term “torture,”[3] and argue that these actions constitute morally reprehensible behavior that a Christian is prohibited from engaging in or supporting.

II. Context: Early Years of the War and the Rise of Torture

Our modern conventions against torture emerged in the shadow of Auschwitz. After the end of the Second World War; the Geneva Conventions were ratified by participating countries to establish international standards for war, including prohibitions on torture. Torture is now a war crime and a crime against humanity, first at the Nuremburg trials and today at the Hague (that no United States official has been indicted by the Hague presents another example of our perceived exception to law). “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,”[4] states the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). In 1949, the Third Geneva Convention proclaimed, “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war.”[5] United Nations article 2.2 prohibits torture, and the United Nations Convention Against Torture (1985) clarifies the definition of the term: “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.”[6]

A claim I will develop is that America’s perception of exceptionalism, her power, and her distance from a truly threatening war created an environment were torture was not only policy de jure but also created de facto. Closer to home, the United States Army Field Manual advises, “…U.S. policy expressly prohibit acts of violence acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, threats [or] insults… as a means of or aid to interrogation.” The irony of Army’s manual is that interrogation techniques deployed at Guantanamo were adapted from the Army’s school for (resistance to) torture, SERE. What was explicitly called torture if done by a foreign entity was rephrased as enhanced interrogation if done in Guantanamo. Beyond being a strictly military or governmental issue, our media has tended to label waterboarding as torture if done by a foreign entity but enhanced interrogation if done by the U.S. This represents a culture-wide ambiguity of the term. We disavow our responsibility.

Early in the war, a 2002 memo written by White House council Alberto Gonzales redefined torture: “Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying sever physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”[7] When the memo became public two years later, it was pointed our that, in practice, this memo could be used to justify any horrific treatment so long as the detainee was not killed in the process. In fact, by this time detainees had begun to die during interrogations, but if this came to light it could be labeled an accident (or framed as a suicide, as may have been the case in Guantanamo). At the same time, the Bush administration and Congress fought the Supreme Court to curtain habeas corpus as well as redefine detainees as “unlawful enemy combatants” and therefore unprotected by the Geneva Conventions that prohibited torture of “lawful enemy combatants.”[8] When Tim Russert interviewed Dick Cheney in 2001, the Vice President feely admitted, “We also have to work, through, sort of the dark side, if you will… A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies… it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal.”[9] As the scandal came to light, President Bush defensively claimed, “We do not torture.”[10] In effect, the U.S. had proclaimed that 1) its interrogation techniques were not illegal, 2) even if they were illegal, the Geneva conventions did not apply to the detainees, and 3) the ticking time bomb argument made law de facto irrelevant in what amounted to an on-going special case of exception.

This is the argument from exceptionalism; no matter what the legal or moral objection, the United States is doing what it must do for the sake of national security. Senator John McCain (R) has been among the most outspoken opponents of torture and astutely observed, “This isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies.”[11] But his Newsweek editorial, while expressing a profoundly moral sentiment, reveals a trace of logic that has lead to the same practices he opposes. He opined, “We allow, confuse, or encourage our soldiers to forget that best sense of ourselves, that which is our greatest strength- that we are different and better than our enemies, that we fight for… that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights,” [emphasis added].[12] I claim that it is this species of exceptionalism, when taken to its conclusion, that led the Vice President to comfortably admit that certain dark measures are warranted. It is the belief that different people have different values, and that American interests supersede the human rights of others.

III. The Definition of Torture

Understandably, the United States has a vested interest in concealing public knowledge of torture. Some of these interests are arguably quite legitimate—it is intuitive that abuse of this sort will generate propaganda for the recruitment of insurgents. Beyond the intuitive, studies have know concluded that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are key reasons Muslim youth have joined insurgent forces, and an untold number of Coalition forces have been killed as a result.[13] But aside from legitimate concerns, a public awakening to abuses would curtail the abilities of the executive branch to execute the war as it sees fit. Since news of interrogation practices has been released, public outcry has been stilted by a definition of terms. What we have is a distraction from the issue in the form of an argument over what is and is not legal. Thus, it is important that we clarify what we mean with the word torture.

Waterboarding has been described as “splashing water in a detainee’s face” on the one hand, and as “controlled drowning” by another. In past history, it has been called one method of water torture and is still called this even within US media when referring to waterboarding by foreign entity. The war over terminology legitimizes or delegitimizes the method. The size and scope of the methods are vested with significance as well, hence the Vice President’s claim that we have only waterboarded three men and the President’s claim that this limited practice yielded life-saving intelligence.

In his book The Future of Faith in American Politics, David Gushee cites a number of practices that have been leaked in recent years. In addition to a now-famous photo of a hooded detainee attached to electrodes at Abu Ghraib, marines in Mahmudiya forced a detainee to dance on an electric transformer. Another detainee at Abu Ghraib was beaten and had a chemical agent poured on his skin while being sodomized with a baton as officers threw a ball as his groin (these two cases are described in Defense Department reports). While there have been no reports of releasing dogs on detainees, dogs have been used at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to scare detainees into thinking they would be attacked. Another was beaten with a chair and choked. The International Committee of the Red Cross describes a detainee who was handcuffed and made to kneel on a surface hot enough to cause severe burns. The Washington Post reports a detainee was chained naked to the floor and left in cold temperatures (the subject died). In Al Asad, another was trapped in a sealed sleeping bag and died of asphyxiation at an American base.[14]

The Guantanamo cases of alleged suicide are a point of ongoing controversy. Prisoners at Guantanamo are checked every three to ten minutes, twenty-four hours a day, specifically to guard against suicide. Objects in their possession are controlled so as to prevent the possibility of suicide, an action that has been made so difficult that even detainees’ water intake is monitored to prevent death by water intoxication (the only avenue of suicide available).[15] On June 9, 2006, three inmates reportedly hanged themselves simultaneously. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) classified its report, but claimed the prisoners had hanged themselves. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the report was made public and found to detail an unlikely scenario. The inmates were said to have hanged themselves from the ceiling with hands and feet bound. Each prisoner had a rag shoved down his throat. The medical examiner arrived immediately and noted rigor mortis had set in (indicating death by as much as two hours earlier- when policy requires prisoners to be checked every three minutes. The report states that the teeth of one man were broken due to attempted resuscitation by the examiner. Sergeant Joseph Hickman, the guard on duty that night, came forward with a different story. He reported the deaths occurred at a previously secret facility on the base, and he recounted a series of trips made that night by a vehicle he had been ordered not to search. By morning, he recalls, everyone knew the detainees had died by suffocating on cloth rags shoved down their throats and that the camp’s commander, Colonel Michael Bumgarner, acknowledged this before informing the soldiers that the media would be reporting a story of hanging instead. Furthermore, a medical examiner listed the official cause of death as hanging but removed the neck organs which would allow follow-up investigation to determine whether death occurred from hanging, choking, or strangulation. One of the men had been determined innocent and was on a waiting list to be sent home, lending further suspicion against the suicide narrative. At least two other soldiers on-site (Army Specialist Christopher Penvose and Specialist Tony Davila) support Hickman’s narrative. The subsequent NCIS and FBI investigations neglected to view closed-circuit monitors, conduct proper interviews, or view pertinent documents in order to reconstruct the night’s events, and further requests for investigations have gone unanswered. Hickman infers the nature of the investigations amounted to tacit threats against would-be informants and demonstrate a culture of secrecy in the Bush administration as well as further cover-up by the Obama administration.[16]

The International Committee of the Red Cross released a 2007 report on its findings at Guantanamo. It focuses on fourteen detainees and describes methods used against them. It includes 1) suffocation by water, 2) prolonged stress positions, 3) use of a collar to slam detainees into a wall, 4) kicking and beating, 5) confinement inside of boxes, 6) prolonged nudity, 7) sleep deprivation with beating and loud audio equipment, 8 ) exposure to extremely cold temperatures, 9) prolonged shackling, 10) threats against the person and family of detainee, 11) forced shaving, and 12) deprivation of food.[17] The report repeatedly refers to lack of access to proper restroom facilities during waterboarding, travel, and shackling. In some cases, detainees are allowed to defecate into a bucket, but often they are required to defecate and urinate on themselves (if naked) or into a diaper. During waterboarding, a subject is strapped to a bed, tilted head-down, and has a cloth inserted into his mouth onto which water is poured, often for nearly a minute at a time.[18] Stress positions vary from standing to kneeling but, in any case, do not allow a subject to sit. These positions are maintained one to ten days. Similarly, differently shaped boxes are constructed to force detainees into uncomfortable positions for extended periods of time. Air holes are frequently covered so as to begin asphyxiation.[19] Nudity is used as a psychological technique and may last from hours to several months.[20] Sleep deprivation is among the oldest of torture techniques, and most of the interviewed detainees reported this practice would be inflected for days before a break was given. One reported loud music being played on a loop for twenty-four hours a day during his first year of detainment in Afghanistan.[21] Detainees, while naked, were placed in tarps and had cold water poured in for fifteen to thirty minutes at a time.[22] Most reported extensive periods of being handcuffed and shackled, and two reported being restrained in this way for half a year without interruption. In addition to threats of beating and rape against detainees and their family members, they report guards frequently explaining that Geneva Convention rules did not apply, “So no rules applied” and they would be brought to “the verge of death and back again.”[23] Food deprivation was frequently carried on for weeks at a time, during which vitamin supplements were used to keep the detainee alive.[24]

More recently, the advent of classified document dumps by Wikileaks has further confirmed abuses. Documents reveal US officers routinely gave custody of prisoners to foreign entities with known practices of abuse. The October 2010 dump details at least six deaths resulting. The cables indicated US investigations into abuse often ended once it was found a prisoner was transferred into Iraqi custody, resulting in no accountability for those involved. A military document from 2005 indicates the use of cigarettes to burn detainees as well as the withholding of common medical treatment resulting in the death of twelve. A 2007 document details a suspect burned with an acid and his fingers cut off: “Victim received extensive medical care at the Mosul General Hospital resulting in amputation of his right leg below the knee[,] several toes on his left foot, as well as amputation of several fingers on both hands. Extensive scars resulted from the chemical/acid burns, which were diagnosed as 3rd degree chemical burns along with skin decay.”[25] A 2009 document details a suspect who, after being beaten, was pushed into a street and shot. Documents detail electrocution, whipping, sodomizing, and forcing detainee to perform oral sex on interrogators and each other. In addition to the torture of detainees, Wikileaks documents recount the homicide of civilians during home raids and at road checkpoints. Hundreds of thousands of documents have now been leaked to and released by Wikileaks, and as further instances of abuse continue, more are expected to come to light. The significance of these documents, aside from further confirmation of abuse, is that they demonstrate torture lasted far longer than the one to two years claimed by the Bush administration. Moreover, the most recent documents suggest abuse has not ended altogether under the Obama administration either.

The question of who is responsible has been the site of blame-shifting. Evidence to-date suggests that torture began in a haphazard way on location but was quickly legitimized and pushed forward by the Bush administration at the highest levels (including the direct involvement Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and the Joint Chiefs). When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004 shortly after a detainee froze to death (which military pathologists ruled as a homicide) the administration framed this as the responsibility of rogue soldiers acting out of order.[26] But Abu Ghraib can also be seen as the reasonable result of two years of torture policy. In 2003, Rumsfeld ordered a team of former Guantanamo officers to “Gitmoize” Iraq.[27] Rumsfeld approved fourteen enhanced interrogation techniques which the administration soon expanded to twenty-four. The Pentagon deployed the “Copper Green” or “Special Access Program,” an elite unit with legal authorization to use force as it saw fit to interrogate any intelligence resource. The military’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) school had long taught its soldiers how to resist torture (with torture techniques modeled on illegal practices used by foreign states), but SERE Air Force Reserve Colonel Steve Kleinman recounts his group being sent to Iraq in order to teach these same techniques to interrogators for use on detainees. Horrified at the realization that his job was to teach torture, Kleinman recalls, “They wanted to do these things. They were itching to. It was about revenge, not interrogation. And they thought I was coddling terrorists.”[28] By this time, “ghost” prisoners were being transported across borders to black sites (also prohibited by Geneva) and request for base lawyers and translators went unanswered.[29] With all this confusion on top of the war effort, commanders sensed a growing concern over whether prisoner abuses were illegal or protected. In addition to the Gonzales memo, more clarification was requested. Justice Department Legal Council Jack Goldsmith recalls DCI Tenet’s request that maximum “flexibility” be maintained in handling detainees. Though the State Department is tasked with issues relating to foreign treaties, the White House deployed the Justice Department’s John Yoo to draft a series of now infamous memos clarifying that no legal protections existed for the detainees.[30] Without international legal protection, with twenty-four torture techniques explicitly sanctioned by the administration, and with still-unclear rules as to what (if anything) was prohibited, the stage was set for a series of scandalous abuses to surface. Within a year, Abu Ghraib broke the world news.

The position of this paper is that this abuse constitutes torture. The opposing position often claims that nothing the US has done could be called torture, but instead is merely legitimate interrogation that has saved lives. While there exists to date no evidence that of the pragmatic latter claim that torture is responsible for life-saving intelligence, the former claim is a more peculiar ethical stance. Put simply, if these actions are not torture, what would constitute torture? I presume the claim that US abuse does not constitute torture comes from one of two sources: 1) ideological loyalty prevents the individual from condemning the abuses committed during the watch of one’s political party, or 2) ignorance of abuses committed misleads the individual to believe no such abuses have occurred. I have only personal anecdote to support this claim, but my experience has been that the vast majority of those defending our abuses are unaware of the techniques used (though ideological loyalty often compels individuals to claim the administration has no direct responsibility after the individual is exposed to reports of torture). For these reasons, it is more important than ever that Christians in the US be informed and tell the truth about this terrible issue.

IV. The Moral Case Against Torture

In Carl Schmitt’s classic treatise on political theory, Political Theology, he opens with the maxim, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”[31] Schmitt develops the idea that sovereignty is defined by the ability to decide to put the law aside. He argues our post-Enlightenment conceptions of the state are really theological beliefs wherein God has been replaced with the state. In short, just as God is free to do as God pleases, the sovereign state is now defined by the ability to make exceptions and disregard law (this does not mean Schmitt is necessarily in favor of the illegal exception, but merely that this is the reality of modern, sovereign politics). The most sovereign state could make exceptions not only to its own laws, but to all international law as well. Schmitt might have said that to torture is to make ourselves a god (or a devil).

Political theorist Walter Benjamin writes, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”[32] Giorgio Agamben more recently builds on this saying, “The voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency (though perhaps not declared in the technical sense) has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states, including so-called democratic ones.”[33] This has come to fruition with the permanent War on Terror, which is given daily in the media as an excuse for rights to be infringed upon. There are no borders, goals are either unattainable or unspecified, and violence by either side serves to replenish ranks and political capital needed to continue an indefinite war. What is more, each side appears to firmly believe the other started the war and is solely in control of when it ends. In this catastrophic situation of perpetual war, the state has declared it must now deploy torture. Exception is made into law via legal memos, habeas corpus is suspended by executive fiat or bureaucratic confusion, and international standards against unlawful treatment of detainees are disregarded entirely. If this is the new mode of operation for America, American Christians must consider more than ever how we are implicated and how to respond.

In his book Torture and Eucharist, William T. Cavanaugh calls torture the “imagination of the state.”[34] He describes the nation-state as performing a drama in which groups are assigned roles to play. Hence the war is framed as one of freedom versus tyranny, liberty versus Islamo-fascism, etc. Cavanaugh’s concept of “inscription” allows us to justify brutal behavior not only toward enemy combatants, but moreover, even civilian noncombatants may be inscribed with the label “expendable.” This is most evident in the number of cases of torture that are only known to us because they are from former detainees—those who were captured and released on lack of evidence after years of abuse. Citing Philip Abrams, Cavanaugh says torture represents not just a physical force but also the people’s belief in the nation-state as it “silences protest, excuses force, and convinces almost all of us that the fate of victims is just and necessary.”[35] Is this not the meaning of Maslow’s saying, “When all you have is hammers, everything looks like a nail,”?[36] This nihilism and misplaced belief is inappropriate for one who professes the lordship of Christ.

Jim Wallis writes, “Christian theology is uneasy with empire, and the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison reveal why. More than just politics is at stake in this scandal; moral theology is also involved… Truth telling is also central to Christian theology, which teaches that falsehood has consequences.”[37] The Patristic fathers were ardently pacifist, and this position was specifically defended as a consequence of Christ’s teaching that we must love our enemies and put down the sword. After the Constantinian conversion, a pragmatic tradition of Just War Theory developed. But the very fact that such limits had to be placed on warfare should serve to remind us of our nature, which is so quick to devolve into brutality. An Evangelical doctrine of sin should cause a deep skepticism of the power given to individuals in the conducting of enhanced interrogations (even if it were to be considered moral under certain circumstances). In a peculiar twist, we seem the least concerned with how this power might be applied. When Evangelicals show broad support for enhanced interrogation, we see a need for a more robust doctrine of sin.

If a doctrine of sin should make us skeptical of the power placed in the hands of interrogators, a system of ethics based on the teaching of Christ, specifically in the Sermon on the Mount. The meek and the peacemakers are called blessed (Matt. 5:5-9), and disciples are commanded to love their enemies (Matt. 5:43-4). The Torah’s lex talionis is rejected (Matt. 5:38-9), and hearers are told to treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated (Matt. 7:12). Perhaps most importantly, Jesus tells his hearers that the road is broad that leads to destruction (Matt. 7: 13-4); though torture may seem unthinkable, it is a most natural thing for individuals to inflict brutal treatment against those by whom they feel threatened. Put succinctly, torturing what one chooses to see as an inhuman, brutal, Islamo-fascist is as easy as hating ones enemy. That is the broad way. It is far more difficult to treat an enemy with dignity as one would like to be treated.

For all the failings of the church to stand up against torture, there are glimmers of hope. Numerous denominations have continued to make statements against torture, and Evangelicals are beginning to see this as a moral issue as well. Shortly after the news of torture broke from Guantanamo, 2007 saw the broad support of “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture.”[38] The document frames torture as an issue of basic human rights where detainees are human beings, neighbors, and “the least of these” (Matt. 25:31-46.) Concern is expressed for aligning our nations legal standards for the treatment of detainees in the War on Terror with “the foundational Christian moral norms”[39] as taught by Christ. The document summarily explains the history of Christianity at its best (drawing support from both Protestant and Catholic sources), supporting human rights up to the present day. After affirming support for international and domestic law that prohibits torture, the document closes by asking that we not become like those we vilify, supporting our own brutal methods by pointing to the terrorism of others. The final paragraph strongly states, “Undoubtedly there are occasions where the demands of Christian discipleship and American citizenship conflict. This is not one of them.”[40] To this I would only add that while there are undoubtedly occasions where Christians may disagree on whether a practice is moral or prohibited, the case of torture is not one of them.

V. Conclusion

This paper has discussed the issue of torture from a theological perspective. I described the early years of the War on Terror that brought about the use of torture, described techniques used for the purposes of 1) describing the horrific nature of actions committed and 2) to justify the use of the term “torture,” and I argued that this constitutes morally reprehensible behavior that a Christian is prohibited from engaging in or supporting in any way.

Torture is not a dead issue. Though firmly eschewed by the current administration and officially prohibited, the cables produced by Wikileaks demonstrate that torture has continued among field agents. While we should find the administration’s firm condemnation of torture reassuring, Guantanamo remains open, black sites are still in operation, and perpetrators of war crimes have been left unpunished. Perhaps most horrifying is that only three candidates running in for the 2012 election (Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, and Barack Obama) have publicly condemned torture. All other candidates in the GOP field have voiced support for returning to a policy of torture. That such rhetoric generates enthusiastic support among so many Americans and Christians should give us pause; this issue is not settled among the American public, and should Agamben’s “state of exception” carry on in the War on Terror, we will continually return to this issue. Now more than ever, Christians must be informed and committed to truth telling about what torture is, about the awful things we have done, and that basic human rights and the ethics of Jesus forbid support of this ineffective and brutal practice. The Gospels describe Christ as being falsely accused and executed by torture in order for the state to maintain peace. For followers of that Christ to support state torture—ostensibly for peace and often against falsely accused individuals—is a case of brutally twisted irony.

by Tad Delay


Blank, Justin, & Kolawole, Emi. “A Tortured History.” FactCheck: Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. (accessed December 2, 2011).

Gushee, David P., The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008.)

Horton, Scott. “The Guantánamo “Suicides”: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle.” Harper’s Magazine. (accessed December 3, 2011).

Hunsinger, George, ed., Torture Is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and People
of Conscience Speak Out (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.)

Inside Guantanamo Bay. DVD. Directed by Cohen, Bonni, and Jon Else. National Geographic Explorer, 2009.

International Committee of the Red Cross. “ICRC Report On the Treatment of Fourteen
“High Value Detainees” In CIA Custody.” NY Books. (accessed December 3, 2011).

“Iraq: Wikileaks Documents Describe Torture of Detainees.” Human Rights Watch. (accessed December 5, 2011).

Mayer, Jane, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror turned into a war on American Ideals (New York: The Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008.)

Schmitt, Carl, & George Schwab, trans, Political Theology: Four Chapters On the Concept of Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.)

“Survey: Support for terror suspect torture differs among the faithful.” CNN. (accessed December 1, 2011).

Wallis, Jim, God’s Politics: Why the Rights Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (New York: HarperCollins, 2005.)

            [1]. Scott Horton. “The Guantánamo “Suicides” (

            [2]. “Survey: Support for terror suspect torture differs among the faithful” (

            [3]. This paper will use the terms “torture” and “enhanced interrogation” interchangeably as synonyms for the same practices. Examples justifying this conflation are given in Section III.

            [4]. David P. Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008), 126.

            [5]. Ibid.

            [6]. Ibid.

            [7]. Justin Blank, & Kolawole, Emi. “A Tortured History” (

            [8]. Inside Guantanamo Bay (National Geographic Explorer, 2009).

            [9]. Justin Blank, & Kolawole, Emi. “A Tortured History.”

            [10]. David P. Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics, 126.

            [11]. Ibid., 134.

            [12]. Ibid.

            [13]. Inside Guantanamo Bay.

            [14]. David P. Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics, 124.

            [15]. Inside Guantanamo Bay.

            [16]. Scott Horton. “The Guantánamo “Suicides” (

            [17]. International Committee of the Red Cross. “ICRC Report On the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” In CIA Custody” (, 8-9.

            [18]. Ibid., 10.

            [19]. Ibid., 13-4.

            [20]. Ibid., 14.

            [21]. Ibid., 15.

            [22]. Ibid., 16.

            [23]. Ibid., 17.

            [24]. Ibid., 18.

            [25]. “Iraq: Wikileaks Documents Describe Torture of Detainees.” (

            [26]. Jane Mayer, The Dark Side (New York: The Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008), 238.

            [27]. Ibid., 241.

            [28]. Ibid., 245-7.

            [29]. Ibid., 244.

            [30]. Ibid., 161-81.

            [31]. Carl Schmitt, & George Schwab, trans, Political Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 5.

            [32]. George Hunsinger, ed., Torture Is a Moral Issue (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 106.

            [33]. Ibid.

            [34]. Ibid., 93.

            [35]. Ibid., 93-4.

            [36]. Jim Wallis, God’s Politics (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 110.

            [37]. Ibid., 146.

            [38]. David P. Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics, 253-70.

            [39]. Ibid., 254

            [40]. Ibid., 268.

Occupy Wall Street: Resist the Populist Temptation

Slavoj Zizek’s speech at Occupy Wall Street. Transcript here.

Ideologies at their purest: 1) Capitalism is bad, Socialism is good. Or, 2) Socialism is bad, Capitalism is good. Ideology is political drive minus fact and substance, the excrement of whatever you believe regardless of reality. I fully support the Occupy Wall Street protest. My concern is that it will only be left-wing version of inane populism that has infected the American right over the past three years. We don’t need more of this kind of populism. But that brings me to the question of how to define populism. What is it? How does it function?

A full two years before the Tea Party came onto the scene, Zizek predicted a post-Bush utlra-right populist movement, defined their characteristics, and gave a rough timeline of their rise and decline. I thought that was a little bit impressive. So while pondering the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and populism, I stumbled across Zizek’s article Against the Populist Temptation.

“The field of politics is thus caught in an irreducible tension between “empty” and “floating” signifiers: some particular signifiers start to function as “empty,” directly embodying the universal dimension, incorporating into the chain of equivalences which they totalize a large number of “floating” signifiers.” – Slavoj Zizek

The definition used here for populism is purely ideological- it depends on ambiguous signifiers. Politics within a democracy depends on ambiguous signifiers- it’s why we don’t trust the same politicians we campaign for. “Change We Can Believe In” was ambiguous- you could plug whatever meaning you want into it, but all it definitely meant was that you had already made up your mind you would be voting for Obama. Birtherism is another ambiguous signifier- it meant less that people were foolish enough to believe Obama was born in Kenya and more that they voted Republican.

Zizek doesn’t go into this in the article, but this type of belief in the signifier is the clinical definition of neurosis. It is the fixation on the symbol with indifference to the Real. Another way to say it is that the symbol holds the place of belief for you. Hashtag your social media with #some-cause, and you won’t have to define your own opinions. The opposite condition of neurosis is psychosis- the belief that your symbol is one and the same with the Real. The catch? You never know whether a belief is more neurotic or psychotic until evidence is irrefutable. Until the birth certificate was released, we had no way of knowing whether Birthers were truly insane or simply affirming their political loyalties. The result? Of the more than fifty percent of Republicans that said they doubted the President’s citizenship, a only a little more than a third were still Birthers after the birth certificate was released. Those people are the psychotics- the ones you should stay away from. The rest were just delving into neurosis- as we all do. What we will see in coming weeks is whether the Occupy movement has legitimacy and staying power, or else is just a psycho/neurotic blip on the radar.

“The first thing to note is that today’s populism is different from the traditional version – what distinguishes it is the opponent against which it mobilizes the people: the rise of “post-politics,” the growing reduction of politics proper to the rational administration of the conflicting interests… there is a constitutive “mystification” that pertains to populism: its basic gesture is to refuse to confront the complexity of the situation, to reduce it to a clear struggle with a pseudo-concrete “enemy” figure (from “Brussels bureaucracy” to illegal immigrants). “Populism” is thus by definition a negative phenomenon, a phenomenon grounded in a refusal, even an implicit admission of impotence.” -Zizek

The far right took a number of long-standing and arguably legitimate concerns but finally mobilized them against a mythical Marxist Muslim from Kenya-the shelf-life of a ridiculous founding myth makes for a quick expiration date. If Occupy Wall Street devolves into a psychotic blaming of bankers and stockbrokers, it will fail. If it blames an unqualified term like “capitalism” and advocates some extreme alternative, it will fail. If if continues to focus on policies to address and raises awareness among a public misguided by 24 hour propaganda masquerading as news, it just might get somewhere. I don’t mean to defend capitalism- we would do well to integrate a good dose of socialism into our irrevocably capitalist economy. And I do not at all mean we need to “find a third way” or any ridiculous nonsense such as this- I absolutely believe we need an actual left in this country to check the abuses of laissez-faire capitalism. I’ll put it this way: the bank CEO’s are praying to Mammon that you will demonize bank CEO’s- scapegoating keeps the system stable.

And please, remember to panic. Because SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT!

by Tad Delay

(audio and notes) Merold Westphal’s Philosophical Hermeneutics

For the last two weeks, I took an intensive on philosophical hermeneutics at Fuller by visiting professor Dr. Merold Westphal.  I was so excited to get to study under a philosopher of his caliber (who has devoted a great deal of his career to exploring hermeneutics), having read several of his books before.  The class exceeded all expectations, and I suspect when I look back at my time at Fuller, it will be the class that shaped me the most.  And a shout out to all the guys in my class whose conversations together on the material we covered made the class even better!  I only wish we had more than a day and a half at the end to cover the distanciation found via the hermeneutics of suspicion in Neitzsche, Marx, and Freud.

Also, we got Dr. Westphal to sit down and ruminate on the current interaction of theology within Continental philosophy for the Homebrewed Christianity podcast!  I’ll be sure to update you when the interview posts.

As for the material itself, we started with the developement of Romantic era hermeneutics at the time of Schleiermacher.  This era prized deregionalization, the Schleiermachean hermeneutical circle, psychologism, and objectivism.  From there, we traced the past two centuries of hermeneutical and linguistic development through Dilthey, Hirsch, Wolterstorff, Gadamer, Derrida, Ricoeur, and others.  We arrive at the “death of the author.”  Gadamer’s thesis is not that the author has no role in determining the meaning of the text, but that we have no definitive access to what the author intented (nor, ultimately, does the author herself know exactly what she meant by the text she wrote, since there are always factors outside our awareness that find themselves in our text).  In practice, this means that any interpretation/application of the text involves the reader inserting his/her own meaning into the text.  We never “just see” what the text “plainly says.”  Neither do we even have the option of simply returning to “the original intent of the author.”

Regarding the death of the author, I remember several years ago when it first occurred to me how odd it is that we so confidently reinforce doctrinal conclusions from one Biblical writer by supporting it with verses written by another.  It is not that the whole cannot ever be used to support the part (and vice versa), but this should always be done with a fair amount of skepticism and a great amount of care.  I had realized it should be patently obvious that the writers were not all working from the same theology (indeed, what two people ever agree on everything), and from there, the obvious question is “how much of that disagreement gets recorded in the text?”  An easy example of this is the recent debate that has played out in Evangelicalism over the unpopularity of Hell; many have retorted “what does the Bible say?” as if the text has a unified doctrine of afterlife.  The clear problem is that an afterlife did not begin to really develop within Israelite-Jewish thought until the 6th century BCE, meaning Abraham, Isaaac, Jacob, and Moses would have differed with Ezra and Nehemiah (who would have differed with Paul, and so forth).  This gets resolved in one of three ways.  1) you can acknowledge the ambiguity and dissonance in the text (which is the position I take). 2) You may claim God-as-author overrides all human influence/difference/ambiguity in the text. 3) Westphal notes that the doctrine of perspecuity in the Reformed tradition emerged to deal with this.  Perspecuity essentially claims that if you interpret the text correctly, you are “just seeing” the plain meaning of the text.  Option 2 is a properly theological claim (if speculative, unsubstantiated, and a priori), and option 3 is more a hermeneutical method that, inevitably, retreats from all modern progress in hermeneutics.

I cannot tell you how helpful this has been and how much I wish more people grappled with these concepts.  Psychologism is the term for the intent of the author in his/her own mind.  Psychologism, along with objectivism, was a staple of hermeneutics two centuries ago, but has since been demonstated to be impossible.  But you wouldn’t know that from popular discourse in religion and politics.  We naturally tend to submerge into the illusion that a theological conclusion can be derived only from “what the text plainly says” and “what the original author plainly meant.”  Hermeneutics since Schleiermacher has progressively dismantled this, resulting in the complete deconstruction of the text with Jacques Derrida.  In other words, there is a giant chasm between the hermeneutics taught at the academy and the naive realism reinforced by pulpits and pundits.  That lead me to ask Dr. Westphal a question during our last Q/A session about the role of hermeneutics in theology: if the so much of theological discourse essentially ignores the progress made in hermeneutics over the last two centuries, what hope do we have for dialogue with those who admit no need for hermeneutics?  His answer was that there may be none at all.  I’m hoping there is a better way forward.

Several friends asked for the audio of the class.  I hope the ordering is clear enough (1a is day one, session one.  2d is day two, session 4, and so forth). Here it is, all 30+ hours of Westphal’s hermeneutics:

Week 1

Westphal 1a Intro and Schleiermacher

Westphal 1b Intro and Schleiermacher

Westphal 1c Intro and Schleiermacher 

Westphal 1d Intro and Schleiermacher 

Westphal 2a Speech Act and Heidegger

Westphal 2b Speech Act and Heidegger

Westphal 2c Speech Act and Heidegger

Westphal 2d Speech Act and Heidegger

Westphal 3a Wolterstorff and Speech Act

Westphal 3b Wolterstorff and Speech Act

Westphal 3c Wolterstorff and Speech Act

Westphal 3d Wolterstorff and Speech Act

Westphal 4a Gadamer

Westphal 4b Gadamer

Westphal 4c Gadamer

Week 2

Westphal 5a review

Westphal 5b Gadamer

Westphal 5c Gadamer

Westphal 6a Art

Westphal 6b art

Westphal 6c art

Westphal 6d art

Westphal 7a Gadamer

Westphal 7b Gadamer and power

Westphal 7c hermeneutics of suspicion

Westphal 7d legality and perspicuity

Westphal 8a Gadamer

Westphal 8b Conversation

Westphal 8c habermas

Westphal 8d Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Westphal 9a QA

Westphal 9b Freud

Westphal 9c Hermeneutics of Suspicion

by Tad DeLay

Why the Rapture Didn’t Happen (and why it’s not going to happen): A Short History of a Strange Belief

Bad news: you will eventually die. I will die. Everyone we know and love will eventually turn to dust. Some people do not believe this. But coming to terms with this is a healthy thing that allows us to appreciate life all the more. To do otherwise is to descend into an illusion in the same way that an addict tells himself he is truly free because he can quit at any moment.

If you want to continue believing you will not die, you should not read this post! Below, I’ll tell the story of how one man came up with a crazy idea about the end of the world and made fame and fortune convincing Americans that they were going to be Raptured. And it’s not Harold Camping.

Guys like Harold Camping and Fred Phelps become a peculiar sort of hero for many of the people who decry them while basically retaining most of the same beliefs. In psychoanalysis, this phenomenon is called fetish disavowal, wherein a symbol is used to exclude something in ourselves from our awareness. All across America, pastors and parishioners will use the coming Sundays to teach on “what the Bible really says” about the Rapture and Tribulation. They will cite the unrelated verse Matthew 24:36 (“No one knows the day or hour…”) to decry date-setters and lend themselves credibility. But I’m sorry to say, this fetish disavowal of Camping’s embarrassing (mis)prediction is nothing more than a repetition of his farce. It’s just Camping’s lunacy minus a date.

As a kid, I read the Left Behind novels, terrified that Jesus would beam me up before I ever got to buy a car or have sex. You guys can laugh, go ahead, but you know you had the exact same fear if you grew up with this stuff! The churches I was a part of taught it like it was normal Christian teaching. And I wasn’t part of any abnormally strange church- it was just normal belief in that part of America. We had charts and graphs, and we knew that the Antichrist was probably a Jew from Eastern Europe, and he was probably a Democrat that would take over the UN. His evil agenda would be easy enough to impliment with all the Christians raptured away (because we all knew that the remaining nonchristians don’t have morals.) Oh, and if anyone ever wanted peace in the Middle East, watch out! That’s very bad! I never even questioned this eschatology until I read N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope, in which he described the Rapture/Tribulation ideology as a “cartoonish” belief confined to North America. I thought the Rapture was believed by all Christians throughout all our history (I mean, it’s in the Bible just like everything else I believe, right?).

I knew people who myself said things like “why care about the climate problem when God will probably destroy the earth before the end of the century anyway?” (the number of Americans who reason like this is truly terrifying). Why care about poverty or economic justice when the final countdown is ticking? All that ultimately mattered was getting people to believe a list of proper things about God so that Jesus could beam them up before that East European Jewish Democrat called Antichrist (a term which doesn’t appear in Revelation) chopped all the Christians’ heads of and enforced abortion-on-demand.

It was all about escape. It justified the idea that the world is not my home. If I made the world a worse place, I was just acting as I expected God to do.

And not only was I going to live forever in an afterlife, I wouldn’t even have to die to get there. I think part one reason that people get so angry when you tell them Rapture is less than 200 years old is that you are giving them back their prospect of death. And telling people they are going to die, when they seriously think that they may not, can be traumatic.

So have you ever heard the history of the Rapture doctrine? Well sit back; you are about to hear the story of how one Brit came up with a crazy idea and made tons of money convincing Americans that they might not have to die (history repeats itself in a perpetually pitiful cycle). Seriously, if you want to keep believing in the Rapture, you should probably quit reading right now!

The History of the Rapture (excerpted from my Systematic Theology paper on The Fundamentals, downloadable as pdf here)

The 19th century had no shortage of speculation on end times and anti-christs. The millenarianism movement, a popular theological conversation emphasizing a literal thousand year reign (either by Christ or by benevolent rulers), had excited the public interest in eschatological speculation. Riding the wave of eschatological hysteria was British Plymouth Brethren pastor John Nelson Darby, the author of dispensational theology. His Dispensational theology divided the Bible and history itself into eras, or dispensations. Ostensibly, this is done in order to account for apparent contradictory messages in scripture, contradictions which disappear when applying a theological grid by which certain verses apply only to the Jewish people or a to the Old Covenant, but do not apply under the New Covenant of Christ.

After ousting his one-time colleague-turned-adversary Benjamin Wills Newton during a quarrel to gain power in his Brethren congregation, Darby had a small but well-connected pulpit to promote his theology. The focus of their argument had been Darby’s creation of a doctrine of a rapture, a doctrine which Newton would spend the rest of his career trying, without success, to dispel. In 1840, Darby took his eschatology public and lectured on the rapture for the first time in Lausanne. The message picked up steam (and Darby picked up a small fortune) as followers flocked to his conferences which predicted a Rapture and an end to the world.

To pin the creation of the Rapture to a specific year, Darby claimed to have realized this doctrine in as early as 1827. Accounts on the origin of this new idea vary (one story posits Darby adopted the Rapture from another wild-eyed Scottish mystic, who envisioned the Rapture during his years living in a cave), but Darby’s belief in a Rapture can be seen as a necessary consequence of his dispensational theology. That is, the Rapture was created two make contradictory Biblical passages on the return of Christ cohere. Darby solved these differences by dividing them into two “second comings,”[sic] one a secret rapture and the other a post-tribulational announcement in glory.

Darby spread dispensational theology via writings and conferences, which effectively solidified his career as a novel theologian. In fact, both Dispensationalism and the rapture might have died out completely if not for Darby’s contact with one man; Cyrus I. Scofield. In the late 19th century, a young pastor Scofield became convinced of Dispensationalism, and in 1909 the Scofield Reference Bible was published. Using the King James Version, Scofield’s highly successful Bible included copious footnoting to explain passages via dispensational theology. For many Christians in America, these footnotes were their first exposure to the rapture doctrine. The Scofield Reference Bible’s dispensational theology, as well as its penchant for literalism (Scofield introduced the date of creation as 4004 B.C.), made it a prime candidate for adoption into fundamentalist circles. Over the next decade, dispensational eschatology focusing on the rapture of the church and speculation about the end times came to dominate conservative Reformed circles, and this theology was practically canonized in The Fundamentals.

The Fundamentals, a series of books published in the 1910s, canonized five main tenants which had to be affirmed for hiring within an increasingly politicized network of denominations, seminaries, and Bible schools. In a movement conceived of by a California oil tycoon and backed by an ambitious cadre of American businessmen, an assortment of evangelists were hired to promote what they saw as the minimum fundamental truths one must assent to in order to be Christian.3 Mass financial backing allowed the free distribution of The Fundamentals, as well as the subsidizing of the Scofield Reference Bible, and they aimed to reach not only pastors but para-church ministries, Sunday school teachers, professors, and missionaries (success among Christian missionaries has expanded American fundamentalism to a global phenomenon). Since the Rapture, Dispensationalism, and the fundamentals were not initially well received by the theological academy (who saw the revisionist pop-theology movement as anti-intellectual), an impressive number of bible colleges were founded to train pastors without influence from seminary academia (most bible colleges today are products of this era). Without the subsidizing of literature and the political connections of these American businessmen, it is likely that the Rapture could have died out. But as the history of Christian theology sadly demonstrates, money and politics make powerful allies in the rewriting of orthodoxy.

In 1924, dispensationalist theologian Dr. Sperry Chafer founded Dallas Theological Seminary, which would become one of the most well respected schools of dispensational and post-fundamentalist, evangelical theology. Founded to teach the new school of Dispensational thought, its impressive success and growth in the 20th century (along with influence on other seminaries throughout the South) produced such a hegemony of belief that, within three generations, most Southern Christians would now express the belief that the Rapture and Tribulation is a belief as old as the church itself! In fact, it is a belief almost exclusively confined to 20th century North American theology.


So the next time your pastor tells you that the Bible teaches about a Rapture, you might ask him how nobody noticed until the crazy cave monk told Darby about his vision about a Rapture. And what exactly did Darby do with all the cash he made from convincing Americans they weren’t going to die? And an even better question: assuming they did their assigned reading in seminary and know all this… why don’t they ever tell their congregations any of it?

by Tad Delay

Interstices of the Sublime

I’m part of a group at Fuller discussing the intersections of theology with Continental postmodern philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. We are currently working our way through philosopher Clayton Crockett’s Interstices of the Sublime: Theology and Psychoanalytic Theory. This post comes as a reflection on Crockett’s chapter on ethics and psychosis entitled “Desiring the Thing.”

God is in the interstices of the Real, the ruptures that disrupt our existence. God is not the patch over a wound but is instead the wound that we patch over with sublime symbolization.

Central to Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory is that the unconscious is structured like language. Continental philosophy of language is indebted to Ferdinand de Saussure who described three parts to language: 1) the signifier, 2) the signified, and 3) the referent. The signifier is a word (i.e. “god”) which describes something the speaker wishes to refer to (i.e. the speaker’s concept of god), which may or may not refer to an onto-metaphysical entity in the world (god as an actual being). Herein lies the crucial addition from the more commonly cited work of Frege, who divided language only into sense and referent, which the sense describes. Saussure’s categories are more nuanced in that his signifier precedes and includes Frege’s sense, and his signified lies somewhere between Frege’s sense and referent. What Frege confidently called the referent, the metaphysical reality in the world, is said by Saussure to be a metaphysical postulation beyond the scope of linguistics and is therefore uninteresting to him as a linguist.

Another way of describing Saussure is to think of a color. “Blue” is a signifier that represents a signified color which I mean to describe. I can describe colors regardless of whether or not colors actually exist in the world. In this case, “blue” does not actually exist as a referent in the world; color is not a physical quality, but merely the result of my occipital cortex processing the electrical signals from my optic nerve generated by incoming photons. But we still talk of color even though, as a referent, it is an illusion. This is also why rigorous theology is possible to conduct regardless of whether God-as-referent exists.

Now we come back to Lacan, who said the unconscious is structured like language. Lacan has a helpful triplet to describe how the individual engages the world: 1) the imaginary, 2) the symbolic, and 3) the Real. The imaginary is the way we imagine ourselves to be (which is a fiction). The Real is the objective self, represented by the unconscious. The symbolic is another fiction in which we prop up the imaginary self and mitigate the Real. A useful example is found in a 1938 Home and Garden magazine article telling of a wonderful aristocrat who loves children, doesn’t touch alcohol, is an animal lover and vegetarian, a connoisseur of art and history and political theory, and who is also Adolf Hitler. The Real Hitler is Auschwitz and WWII. The imaginary Hitler is himself as a cultured humanitarian. And the symbolic is the defense mechanisms of his water color paintings, handing out treats to children, and being a much-beloved host to guests.

To combine Lacan and Saussure, we could picture it as such:

Imaginary = Signified

Symbolic = Signifier

Real = Referent

What struck me in my reading of Crockett was not only the negative note of how disruptive for theology a psycho-linguistic theory could be, but also the positive possibility of identifying neurotic psychosis in a religious group.

The Real/referent is outside the scope of pure experience precisely because experience must be mediated by senses and mind. But our desire is nonetheless for something real. Freud called it the Thing (Das Ding), the primary object of desire, which is completely inaccessible. It is only semi-accessible via symbolization.

Das Ding is that which I will call the beyond-of-the-signified… and is constituted in a kind of relationship characterized by primary affect, prior to any representation.” – Jacques Lacan

The Thing we desire (in the case of theology, God) is outside the realm of symbols and signifiers. God exists in the Real. Which brings us to an interesting Lacanian definition of psychosis:

“Psychosis is the refusal to enter into the symbolic order, to cling to the Real, and, since this is impossible, it results in hallucinations.” – Clayton Crockett

Desire must include symbolization. Even the one I love exists for me in the realm of incomplete symbol rather than as one to whom I have direct, Real knowledge (this is why even an entire lifetime is not enough time to discover the whole person). If desire resists admitting symbolization and instead insists it directly accesses the Real, this is psychosis. This is similar to Derrida’s widely misunderstood maxim “the truth is there is no Truth,” which could be rewritten in psychoanalytic terminology as, “the Real truth is that symbolic truth is simply not quite the Real truth.” In Totem and Taboo, Freud describes how evolved maxims came to have religious language appropriated and canonized. Early in our domestication of animals, Freud argues, we would have quickly figured out that incest resulted in malformation; it was only later that the gods were said to have originally forbidden it. This after-the-fact appropriation obscures the original intent, and to obsessively claim the taboo originated with the gods is often to descend into this neurotic (obsessively focused) fiction. In the same way, to speak of the color “blue” is normal; but to become angry when the fiction disintegrates (i.e. someone points out to you that color is only an illusion in the mind) is to demonstrate neurotic psychosis.

If you are still following me at this point, it should be clear how theology can descend into this psychosis. It is a general danger to us all, but is particularly acute in religious varieties that rigorously hold to claims of literalism and absolutism. We are most prone to forgetting the nature of symbolism where it should be most obvious: the text (symbols) of scripture. Resistance to questions is always a sign of a descent into psychosis. All religious doctrine is a symbolic representation of the Real, but to claim that a doctrine represents a direct one-to-one correlate to the Real (i.e. a claim that my belief about atonement is not only helpful, but is how it actually works) is dangerously neurotic.

And this dangerously neurotic psychosis is not confined to individuals; in many religious groups, it is a basic requirement for entry into the community. The psychosis may be perpetual, or it may be a weekly rhythm one descends into for an hour on Sunday before reentry into the more stable world of symbolization. I’m not sure which is more unhealthy.

As the Apostle Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly.” Our dimly mirrored purview may symbolically approximate the Real, but it is not yet the Real. Not yet.

by Tad Delay

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Why Westboro Baptist Church Could Be a Blessing (but won’t be), Why Batman is a Villain, and How Picasso’s “Guernica” Let Us Kill a Million People

On Thursday, March 3rd, the nation opened its news feeds and collectively wished we didn’t have a first amendment, as the Supreme Court upheld the free speech rights of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. These are the bastards that go about protesting soldiers’ funerals, holding colorful “God Hates Fags” signs, and reminding us why America sucks: we’ve let the lib’ruls and the gays and perverts corrupt our children, and now God has it in for us.

I don’t particularly care about this Supreme Court ruling, but Westboro hits the news cycle about every other month, and this month happened to coincide with my reading of Slavoj Zizek’s How To Read Lacan. This combination got me thinking about the great potential we have (but which will never be realized) in the Westboro klan.

Repression and the Return of the Repressed are One – Jaques Lacan

When Colin Powel made the case for the Iraq invasion before the UN, the US delegation demanded that Picasso’s Guernica, which depicts the catastrophic German bombing of Spanish civilians, be removed. The US claimed it was not statesmanlike given the occasion, but of course this was a farce. The funny thing is that nobody would have noticed if a big deal had not been raised over it. When you repress, your repression returns the favor by cropping up in other ways (like how teetotalers discharge stress by becoming enourmous gluttons instead of alcoholics like normal people do).

Unwritten rules are the most insidious to break. Zizek imagines a story in which you are listening to a state speech during the Stalinist purges. A man stands during the speech and cries out, “Comrade Stalin, the government is corrupt!” As the guards close in on him, you stand and shout, “Comrade, be quiet you fool! Don’t you know that we don’t talk about the corruption?!” The guards will be sure to shoot you first. In the same way, when you pull out your driver’s license for the cop that pulls you over, you experience true horror when the cop, noticing you have let a hundred dollar bill slide our of your wallet with a wink, exclaims, “You are trying to bribe me?!” Plausible deniability exists until we name the unwritten rule, which is why we never name the unwritten rule. The exception to this rule is twofold: alcohol and Facebook- two things that remove our better social inhibitions and allow us to truly express the unconscious (much in the same way that to truly know somebody, you should see how they behave in a virtual Second Life, where the social inhibitions of unwritten rules are removed). Unwritten rules are so sacred that when we speak them aloud, or God forbid, break them, we commit the highest social sin. This is why Westboro spooks us.

Westboro believes God hates homosexuality, that gays have made a choice to live in immorality, and that America has turned its back on God (who is now pissed) with its liberal rights. They put the logical extent of religious ultra-right-wing belief into practice, evangelizing to lost culture as they enthusiastically carry their message forward. Is this not, more or less, what at least a third of America truly believes? The horror of Westboro is not that they believe God hates fags, but that they say God hates fags.

Belief doesn’t matter much. You can believe whatever you want. But, we unconsciously say, for the love of all that is sacred, don’t act as if you believe it.

This is the gift I claim that Westboro offers us. Their blessing is that we have a chance to recognize the horror of these beliefs, see them in ourselves, and repent, but we won’t. We wont recognize the plank in our own eyes as we judge them because of a second, far more insidious psychoanalytic concept from Freud.

Fetish Disavowal, or Why Batman is the Villain and Westboro is the (Potential) Hero

I would love to rewrite The Dark Knight to the tune of reality, where the Joker gets his way as Batman murders him while ferry passengers blow each other up. Bruce Wayne has the resources to recreate himself as a private, one-man, high tech army, and nobody notices. He has so much wealth that all he must do is sleep through a board meeting once a week, resting up to beat up bad guys on the weekend. This is why Batman is the true villain; instead of beating up bad guys, how much more good would be done in Gotham if his vast rescourses were used instead to fund job training, education, and so forth? But no, in order to mask his true potential (along with his horror and waste), he plays the part of a hero. This is pseudo-activity. The true enemy of progressive activity is not passivity, but this type of pseudo-activity which is expressed by Disavowing the horror of reality by redirecting attention into a Fetish symbol.

Again, Westboro should be a sign of the weakness of this ultra-rightist, religiously oppressive belief, but fetish disavowal will save the day.

I notice that some of the most outspoken critics of the Westboro Baptists are people who share the gist of their political belief (if not their expression). So what does one do when feeling anxiety due to people (whom you agree with) breaking the unwritten rules about what is acceptable to say? You sacrifice them!

So while the Westboro Baptists should be taken as a critique of religious oppression and fundamentalism, it is instead a symbol for millions of Americans to say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (my unconscious which agrees with them)! Instead, look at those angry zealots!”

And thus, Westboro will continue to be in the news, because we continually need to sacrifice in order to justify ourselves. Let Batman continue to play the hero, and please don’t point out the Guernica!

by Tad Delay

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